Tuesday, September 18, 2001

One Week After The Attack

On Monday night, David Letterman proved again why he is the current king of late night television. Speaking from the heart and choking back his emotions, he explained that he was unsure he should be doing his television show now, but that he had been inspired by Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s plea to try to return New York City to normal.

Much of the attention from that show has gone to guest Dan Rather, who, no doubt suffering complete exhaustion after putting in 16 hour days every day for the last week, broke down at least twice when talking about last week’s attack and the ensuing carnage.

But it was Letterman’s opening commentary, seemingly from small notes and without cue cards, along with a perfect mix of raw emotion, information, and –- thanks to the equally genuine Regis Philbin -– moments of mild humor, that set the tone not only for his own show but for all other TV talkers.

Letterman claimed he was unsure of how to handle the show, saying he didn’t trust his own feelings, and that he was just a dumb guy trying to understand this madness. He shouldn’t have any doubts. He is by far the most intelligent and natural broadcaster of all his peers.

Letterman paid homage to Giuliani, saying he “defined courage.” No matter what you may have thought of him before, you have to respect the way the Mayor has seen his city through this crisis. When asked today, if term limits were revoked, would he like to continue being Mayor of New York for another four years, he answered, “I haven’t had time to think about that....there’s much more important work to be done right now.” Can’t argue with that.

At the other end of the spectrum, can anyone still have even an ounce of respect for Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson after their incredibly divisive remarks? Falwell essentially said that God probably gave America what it deserved, blaming the attack on gays, lesbians, feminists, the ACLU, etc. Robertson agreed completely. These two are religious extremists who believe that a vengeful deity works on the agenda of their own hatred to kill those who dare disagree with them.

That’s more than un-American. That’s the Taliban.

After some -- but not nearly enough -- people condemned Falwell for what he said, he complained that he was being quoted out of context. When no one bought that, he was forced to issue an apology. Sorry, Jerry, too little, too late. It’s obvious that you truly believe what you said, and are only now doing a mea culpa in an attempt to save yourself from the pile of irrelevancy to which Robertson was banished several years ago. This is not to say that all evangelical Christians should be seen as sharing Falwell’s views (any more than saying all Muslims share Osama bin Laden’s views), but why they, or anyone else, would want anything to do with Falwell ever again is beyond me. Not that I understood it in the first place.

You think that’s harsh? Let’s reverse it. Just imagine the uproar if an Islamic religious leader had made those statements. There would be even more mosques attacked in this country than there already have been by other morons practicing their own disgusting brand of American vigilantism.

Who was it who first considered war to be “holy," anyway?

To make it worse, Falwell chose to make these statements at a time when our country is all about unity, not polarization. While never denying his First Amendment right to shove his foot so far down his mouth that he chokes on his own kneecaps, we should all censure anyone who looks to make scapegoats of Americans for this horror.

The blame lies entirely with these enemies who turned our own airplanes against us, wreaking havoc never before known on these shores. They did all this damage through years of planning, plus a few knives and a couple of box cutters. But until they took over those planes, these madmen hadn’t committed any crime. It was legal for them to have those sharp implements on their person as they passed through the airport security checkpoint. In response, the FAA has now banned passengers from bringing any knives onboard a commercial flight. Will they still hand them out to first class passengers with their meals, or will future terrorists have to use a fork? The hijackers were all sitting in first class seats, by the way.

A great deal of the clamp down on security across America is merely cosmetic. It is designed to make us feel more secure, without actually ensuring our security. We’ll be more vigilant, just as we did after Tim McVeigh killed 168 Americans, but once a few months have passed, we’ll get lax again, unfortunately.

Not that America doesn’t have continuing cause to worry, but some of the reaction borders on the paranoid. What’s being overlooked is the fact that these terrorists were not simply out to get American citizens. They could have killed more of us by crashing their fuel-loaded airplane bombs into the stands of any Nascar race.

But these demons wanted to demolish American icons, which is why they targeted the World Trade Center and the Pentagon (although we now know that the true target was the Capitol Dome). Those are symbols of everything they hate. While we would have mourned the deaths of thousands of Americans in other venues just as deeply, these attacks dug more intensely into the American psyche because of the buildings our fellow citizens were in at the time of the attacks.

So many other things have occurred to me over the last week. Here are just a few more...

Michael Moore, the film maker and TV producer, was in Oklahoma City yesterday and went to the memorial site for the Murrah Building blast. He noted that a large granite slab there says “9:03,” and was struck by the fact that this is the same exact minute that the second plane slammed into the World Trade Center.

I nearly choked at the irony of seeing Yassar Arafat condemning the attack on America and then giving blood. As if his contributing one pint somehow makes up for the gallons of blood he and his followers have spilled through the years.

On my Monday show, I begged the TV broadcasters to stop showing the video images of the planes hitting the Twin Towers. We have all seen those images so often that they are seared into our consciousness. No need to run them again for a very long time. On Tuesday, David Westin, president of ABC News, became the first to declare that his network would not show that footage anymore. Bravo!

Finally, I can’t help but wonder whether we’ll care about “reality TV” anymore. Suddenly, the phrases “Survivor” and “Fear Factor” have taken on a new meaning in America.

So has “reality.”

Wednesday, September 12, 2001

You Had To See The Terror

I was going to sit down last night and compose some thoughts about the events that overtook America on Tuesday, but I became entranced just sitting and watching it all unfold on television.

Make no mistake about it, this was a television event.

I love the medium of radio, which I have worked in for over two decades, and which can bring people together in a way that TV, newspapers, magazines, and the internet never can. But it does that best on the day after. Radio can rally the American spirit, get people out to blood drives, allow us to exercise our free speech rights in two-way communication and discussion.

Yet it is TV that bound us all together on Tuesday. This was a story you had to SEE to believe.

You had to SEE the planes crashing into the World Trade Center.
You had to SEE a slice taken out of the Pentagon as if it were a five-sided apple pie.
You had to SEE the Twin Towers collapsing into rubble.

TV became our communal viewmaster, just as it did for the Columbine massacre, the Challenger explosion, the LA riots, the OJ Bronco chase. Even a thousand words did not match these pictures. In fact, no words seemed to match.

There were at least six different views shown of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center –- all taken by amateurs with home video cameras who just happened to be rolling tape at the time. How many people do you know walking around with audio recorders, randomly catching major moments on tape and handing them over to broadcasters?

On the day after, there aren’t enough words to express everything we’re feeling. Nonetheless, I have more than a few that I have to get off my chest.

Looking at the rubble, the ash, the demolished neighborhood, I thought, “Welcome to the third world.” When I heard that nearby hospitals were treating over 1,500 people with severe burns all over their bodies, I thought, “Welcome to Hiroshima.”

My earliest TV memory was the national trauma of the assassination of JFK. I was only 5 years old, but I sat in the living room with my parents watching a black and white television with flickering images of Oswald, Ruby, the rider-less horse, the funeral procession, the mourning.

Now my daughter is 7 years old, and when she came home from school on Tuesday afternoon, she wanted to watch the news coverage of this disaster. She’s curious, full of questions, a little bit afraid, but mostly interested in what she can tell is obviously something big. This will be the milepost for her early life, as the death of a President was for my generation.

She’ll remember sitting with us as we flicked from channel to channel, looking for more information and comparing the coverage, which was everywhere. CBS simulcast Dan Rather (subdued yet frantic, which only Dan can pull off) on MTV, VH-1,
and Country Music Television. NBC ran the Brokaw/Couric/Lauer trifecta plus separate fronts on MSNBC and CNBC. CNN was on every AOL/Time Warner channel. ESPN ran the ABC crew and Fox Sports Net simulcast Fox News Channel. Most of the shopping channels quit selling cubic zirconia for the day, while Barry Diller’s Home
Shopping Channel picked up the Canadian feed of his co-owned NewsWorld.

You know it’s an important story when it gets a title -- “America Under Attack!” (or, in Spanish, “Estados Unidos Bajo Ataque!”). All the networks were soon crowding the screen with titles, logos, graphics, and news tickers. How many of the executives who chose to put those up on screen were among those who criticized the new look of CNN Headline News for doing exactly the same thing?

Thanks to digital cable, we watched news feeds from Spanish-language Univision (actually understanding some of it, to our gringo surprise) and the BBC (alone in giving some perspective to the story by providing background every once in awhile), contrasting their different approaches with the near-hysterical can’t-catch-your-breath reportage of the various US networks.

Was there anything more sickening than seeing people hanging out of the World Trade Center’s windows 90 stories above the ground, desperate for help yet unreachable? I couldn’t help thinking that if it were me, and the smoke and flames were making death a certainty inside, I’d probably do a header into the pavement, too.

Fox was the only net that stepped over the line when they aired footage of someone on a high floor jumping to their death, the camera following the doomed person all the way down to the ground. There’s absolutely no reason to put that footage on the air. None. Ever. What's next, doing a split screen with footage of Susan Flannery, as Robert Wagner's lover, doing the death dive through the window of "The Towering Inferno"?

The field reporting, especially on the cable nets, was outstanding. Fox’s Rick Leventhal and MSNBC’s Rehema Ellis and Ashleigh Banfield showed crisis courage we haven’t seen since Peter Arnett.

Speaking of Arnett, CNN’s Nic Robertson must have thought he’d lay claim to his title by doing live reports from Kabul, Afghanistan, of apparent US attacks on the city. Too bad they turned out to be something else entirely. But how about that remote broadcast via videophone?

That was the best use of technology for the day, until we heard that some of the survivors in the Trade Center rubble were using their cell phones to call for help and contact family members. Good thing they didn’t get rid of those cell phones when New York banned them in cars.

In St. Louis, one reporter was doing a live shot from the terminal at Lambert Airport long after it had been closed and all flights canceled. She said authorities had found accommodations for all travelers, although some people had decided to “tough it out” in the terminal for the night.

Who are these people who passed on a hotel room and chose a completely uncomfortable plastic airport chair for the night? Who stayed at the terminal all night keeping an eye on them? Who would call that “toughing it out” compared with what was going on in New York and Washington? That’s as bad as the other reporter I heard calling the nearly-empty terminal “a wasteland.” Come on, choose your words more wisely.

Somewhere in Hollywood, Jerry Bruckheimer is thinking about who will star in the inevitable big-screen exploitation of this tragedy. And Aaron Sorkin just got the inspiration for the “West Wing” finale.

Remember when video of a demolition crew imploding a building was cool to watch? Never again.

Thursday, September 06, 2001

Carl Gottlieb, "Jaws" screenwriter

The screenwriter of "Jaws" and author of "The Jaws Log" told several behind the scenes stories on my show today, including how Robert Shaw came up with the speech about being on the USS Indianapolis, how that's not Richard Dreyfuss in the scene with the head coming out of the bottom of the boat, and how Roy Scheider really was scared by the shark coming out of the water in the famous "you're gonna need a bigger boat" scene.

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